Back to the Future: Human Centered (Re)Design for the Future of Towns & Cities

In the late 1990s, I took a class at Temple University in “American Material Culture.”  Taught by the venerable Prof. Alan Davis, the class was probably the spark that ignited my interest in Design as a field of study.  We read books that examined Coney Island, Sears Catalogs, American homes, and World Fairs as artifacts of intention.  That is, we studied the built environment as conglomeration of texts which, because they had been designed, allowed us to read and infer intention out of them.

At the time, I had grown an interest in Historical Preservation.  Somehow, as a young 20 year old, I’d started getting Preservation Magazine, the publication of The National Trust for Historic Preservation.  That magazine, Prof. Davis’s reading list, and my thesis paper focused on a movement in architectural design and preservation termed “The New Urbanism” led me to develop a sense for city and urban planning that still influences the way I look at small towns and large cities and how we move through those spaces.

Pine Street, Philadelphia, PA: From the National Trust for Historic Preservation

One aspect of my studies that remains with me is the manner in which the automobile changed the shape of American towns and cities.  (And yes, I know I risk simplifying things here…such is the nature of my current medium. If you want more, read my thesis paper.) Small-town America on the East coast and other towns in the nation that grew up around railroads are far different from those towns (see Levittown, for instance) that developed after the advent of mass production of automobiles.  The former displays a strong town center, generally organized around a rail station.  Most all destinations within those towns are within a 1 or 2 mile radius–about the distance a healthy human being can walk in 15 minutes or so.  But towns organized around the automobile generally display little of the coherence and emergent organization of their rail-oriented counterparts.  

Mt. Airy Station, SEPTA Regional Rail Station, Philadelphia PA: From the National Trust for Historic Preservation

Those first towns, often called “first-ring suburbs,” were designed with their denizens at the center.  Whether that design was purposeful or, as I mentioned above, “emergent,” is up for debate.  Regardless, it’s clear that what mattered most was that the scale of the town had to fit the humans who created, lived in, and developed it.  The loss of such a human-centered approach to town planning in the early to mid-20th Century was one of the great failings of the modernists, the automobile moguls, and the planners they influenced.  

Thus, when I find articles describing attempts to (re)create the human scale of American towns, I jump upon them. While I admit that a privileged nostalgia urges my leap, I am aware that modern planners are far more cognizant of the ways in which town planning must provide equitable access to housing, shopping, public transportation, etc. (We can’t all live in the prefabbed, postmodern histories of towns like Disney’s “Celebration, FL.”)

Two articles recently crossed my newsfeed that rekindled my interests in town/urban planning and drove me back to that thesis paper and the work of the New Urbanists. Both articles come from an online newsletter, Alchemist City, in itself a “good thing” that focuses on providing news about urban design reforms around the world. (Click here to join their newsletter.). The first article is about “The Point,” a proposed town in Utah that seeks to be “America’s first 15-minute city” and to drastically cut reliance on automobiles. Here’s a map of the proposed town, built around access to public transportation and numerous bicycle and walking pathways.

From the Alchemist City Newsletter, 1/21/22

The second article, again, also from Alchemist City, is about the plan in Milan, Italy (Italy’s most populous city) to create up to 466 new miles of protected bike lanes. Approved by the Metropolitan City of Milan to the tune of $285 million, the plan places Milan ahead of the much larger city of Paris and it’s 422 miles of proposed bike lanes. (David Byrne is, I’m sure, elated.)

Both of these initiatives are good things. Yes, we can argue that these are special cases, that one is foreign and based within cities that were already “pre-automobile” and “continental” in their design, and that the other is created upon a “clean-slate.” However, they are initiatives that seek to reduce human impact on the environment and to do so in ways that are good for people and business. It’s just that those businesses aren’t your huge multinational automobile conglomerates that seek to drive us into oblivion, whether it be in a gas-guzzler or “clean” electric vehicle.

From the Alchemist City Newsletter, 1/21/22

Finally, and here’s a hint about the next “Do Good Things” newsletter’s topic, both of these initiatives clearly are paying attention to the impact they have beyond the local. That is, these initiatives consider their impact on a much larger geography (the world) and a much larger time frame (designing for the future). Such forward thinking is indicative of people who are concerned about the great good, who understand the necessity for all people to act within the framework of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and who are interested in making the world a better place.

And that’s a good thing.

More Research: article on 15-minute cities
15-minute Cities website:  Apparently, they have an entire website and movement.

Published by Garreth Heidt

Designerly Minded High School Humanities and Liberal Studies Teacher Faculty Mentor FIRST Robotics Team #7414--PV Retrobotics. Constantly learning, trying to be more a maker and less a consumer of culture. I believe in the infinite value of a liberal education and the power of design thinking to help make the world a better place.

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